Aquitaine – the Rafale’s OCU

In the North Eastern district of the Champagne region at Saint-Dizier – Commandant Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Air Base, officially known as Base Aérienne 113, the French Air Force houses its Rafale Operational Conversion Unit. Escadron the Transformation Rafale 03.004 “Aquitaine” (ETR 03.004), as the Rafale OCU is known, trains all the French Air Force pilots and weapons system officers for the Rafale fleet. In addition this unit also trains the French Navy Rafale pilots.

Saint-Dizier – Robinson airbase has a long aviation history. This started in 1910 when the first aircraft landed in Saint-Dizier. In 1913 Saint-Dizier was officially established as a Military airfield by the French Armed Forces which, at that time, called it Robinson field. In both World Wars the airfield was extensively used by the military. In 1940 the airfield was captured by the Germans when they invaded France and soon after the German Luftwaffe would use St.Dizier, mainly as a night fighter station. In 1944 the Americans would recapture Saint-Dizier and would use it as an advance landing ground.  After the war ended the French Air Force returned to the airfield. In 1949 the airfield saw the beginning of a major upgrade to the airfield which was to become BA113 Saint-Dizier-Robinson. Saint-Dizier became a big part of the French Nuclear Deterrence when the French government stationed the Mirage IV A at Saint-Dizier. The Mirage IV A was phased out by the French Air Force in 1988 leaving the Sepecat Jaguar as the only aircraft stationed at Saint-Dizier. In 2006 the first Rafale arrived at the base. Escadron de Transformation Rafale 02.092 “Aquitaine” was established on the 10th October 2010 continuing the history of Escadron de Bombardement 2/92 as part of the newly formed 4th Fighter Wing. On the 1st September 2016 unit designation was changed to Escadron de Transformation Rafale 03.004 “Aquitaine”.

When France stepped out of the Future European Fighter Aircraft program in 1984 which it started with Great Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain, and eventually became the Eurofighter Typhoon, it started its own program to produce a dual role fighter with weighed less than the EFA proposed at that time. The French government wanted a fighter that could replace a lot of different types in service at the time within the French Air Force and the Navy. The Air Force wanted to replace their Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and Mirage F1’s while the Navy was looking for a replacement for their ageing fleet of Crusaders and Etendards.

In 1985 the first Rafale took to the air. This was the technology demonstrator and would be used to test all the systems needed for the new aircraft. This Rafale was equipped with the General Electric F404 in the first couple of flights because the new engines developed for the Rafale were not completely tested. With the use of the F404 engines Dassault Aviation wanted reduced the risks that are normally encountered with new engines. When the newly designed Snecma M88 engines were installed in the Rafale in 1990 it was capable of flying supersonic without the use of afterburner.

In 1988 the French government ordered 4 Rafale prototypes of the future standards comprising of one Rafale C, two Rafale M’s and one Rafale B two seater. With the Rafale C and M prototypes making their first flight in 1991 followed by the first flight of the Rafale B in 1993 the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent end of the Cold War let to serious budget cuts which had a huge impact on the development of the Rafale.  One of these budget cuts in addition to weight reduction resulted in the variable inlet not being installed on the Rafale. This meant that the Rafale could “only” fly at a maximum speed of Mach 1.9. Compared to the Rafale prototype, the production model of the Rafale has also been made stealthier to increase is success rate against modern threats.

With lessons learned by the French Air Force in the Gulf War it was decided that the Rafale B was not only going to be used as a trainer. The second crew member proved to be a valuable addition when the aircraft is used for tactical reconnaissance or strike missions. For these missions the French Air Force prefers a two seat aircraft which is why the French Air Force bought more two seater versions than single seat versions of the Rafale. The two seat version comprises 60 percent of the total 212 airframes build for the French Air Force. Besides the Single seat Rafale M, the French Navy also had an option for 35 Rafale N Naval two seat versions but these were never build.

Saint-Dizier is the only airbase in the French Air Force with a Rafale OCU solely created to train French Air Force and Navy pilots. Other Rafale OCU’s are located at Mont-De-Marsan Airbase and at the Dassault facility in Bordeaux to train foreign Rafale pilots. Because the Navy cancelled their Rafale N two seater option it was decided that they also would join the French Air Force OCU. Half of the Rafale M pilots receive their training at Escadron de Transformation Rafale 03.004 “Aquitaine”, this is also the reason why some Rafale M’s are stationed at Saint-Dizier. These airframes are only flown by Navy instructors and trainees while the Rafale C and B of the French Air Force are flown by both Navy and Airforce pilots. The initial training for all pilots in the French Armed Forces starts at BA709 Cognac where the new recruits learn the basics of flying on the TB-30 Epsilon. After being selected to become a fighter pilot the fighter pilot trainees proceed on the Dassault Alpha Jet, first in Tours and later on in Cazaux to get trained in as fighter jet pilot and learn basic weapon tactics. Now the TB-30 Epsilon has now been phased out and the same fate looms on the horizon for the Alpha jet, the training course has been changed. All training in the future will be done at BA709 on the brand new Pilatus PC-21. This will also mean that the first jet the new pilots will fly will be either the Mirage 2000 or the Rafale. During their training the new pilots who are destined for the Armee de l’Air can request on which aircraft they want to fly in the future. They can choose between the Rafale and the different Mirage 2000 variants. New Rafale pilots will go to Escadron de Transformation Rafale 03.004 in Saint-Dizer and the Mirage pilots will go to Orange where the Mirage 2000 OCU is located. The French Navy pilots follow a different path before arriving at Saint-Dizier. First they will learn basic flying at Lanveoc-Poulmic before being transferred to the USA where they continue their training with the US Navy on the T-6 Texan and the T-45 Goshawk. Besides pilot, ETR 03.004 also trains the Weapons System Officers (WSO). These back seaters play a vital role in during the mission and divides the workload in the cockpit. After completing the Rafale OCU, the French Air Force pilots can be stationed at one of three airbases which operate the Rafale.

1. Base Aérienne 113 Saint-Dizier – Commandant Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, which is home to:

    • Escadron de Chasse 02.004 “La Fayette”
    • Escadron de Chasse 01.004 “Gascogne”
    • Escadron de Transformation Rafale 004 “Aquitaine”

2. Base Aérienne 118 Mont-de-Marsan, home to:

    • Escadron de Chasse 02.030 “Normandie-Niemen”
    • Escadron de Chasse 03.030 “Lorraine”
    • Escadron de Chasse et d’Expérimentation 01.030 “Côte d’Argent”

3. Al Dafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates which houses:

    • Escadron de Chasse 01.007 “Provence”

All future Rafale pilots and their navigators are stationed at Saint-Dizier for their training. These trainees can be new pilots straight out of the initial training in Tours and Cazaux that got assigned to the Rafale or the more experienced pilots that transition from other fighters like de Mirage 2000.

Training of the new French Air force pilots will take around 10 months in which they will fly roughly 80 hours. 40 percent of these hours are flown in the simulator. For the experienced pilots including foreign exchange pilots the syllabus will take 4 months in which the will make 25 flight hours of which 50 percent will be flown in de simulator. They need less time because they already know how to fly mission and what the procedures are in the European airspace so they only need to know how to operate the Rafale. The flight classes are made up with 90 percent pilots and 10 percent Weapon System Officers.

The Squadron has the availability of 4 separate simulators that have an almost 300 degrees vision and are equipped with fully functional Rafale cockpit. Here the future Rafale pilots first train to learn how to use all the different displays that are present in the cockpit. These different display and its functions are one of the biggest threats for the new Rafale pilots according Squadron Leader “Surax”, real name withheld due to safety reasons, the Commanding Officer of ETR 03.004 as he explains: At first the new pilots are drawn into the instruments. It gives them so much more information than they are used to that it is easy for them to forget to look outside and fly the aircraft. The students start out with the basics of operating the cockpit and will gradually be given more challenging scenarios in the cockpit to simulate the normal workload which is present with a real life flight. During the simulated training syllabus the pilots will also have emergencies and aircraft failures thrown at them to prepare them for their first flight in the Rafale. The four separate simulators can also be coupled together to let the students learn to fly formation and lets them fly Basic Fighter Maneuvers like a 1v1 and Advanced Combat Maneuvers like the 1v2, and 2v2 without the cost and dangers of operating a real world aircraft. Before each sortie in the aircraft the same mission will be flown first in the simulator. As the front and rear cockpits of the Rafale are the same the WSO will also train in the same simulator.

Normally during the duration of the Rafale training course 20 to 25 pilots are trained. On a yearly basis ETR 03.004 sees 60-80 trainees going through the course. As the Rafale is being sold to different countries the Escadron de Transformation Rafale also trains student pilots from different air arms. At the time of our visit a class of Qatari pilots was in training to fly their newly acquired Rafale aircraft. Qatari pilots follow a training syllabus that is a little bit different form the one that de French pilots get. This is because the Qatari Air Force uses a different Tranche of Rafale and the pilots are not custom to the European weather and there for have never flown in cloudy weather so they first need to be taught to fly in these conditions. Like every mission and training syllabus this is first done in the simulator before flying the aircraft for real.

Besides the Qatari Air Force, The Indian Air Force and the Hellenic Air Force also bought the Rafale. The initial cadre of Indian pilots went through ETR 03.004 as well but they are now trained by Dassault on their own aircraft in Bordeaux.

The students spent a lot of time on the ground learning all the different procedures. Besides procedures they also need to plan their missions. Each mission is carefully planned by the new pilots. First the student will start with a single ship mission and will gradually work themselves up to the more difficult and more complex missions. The digital systems of the Rafale make it easy to debrief the missions flown with all the pilots involved. Each Rafale automatically records the complete flight. After the mission all of these recordings can be combined to give the pilots a complete 3D view of their mission. This system does not need the complete ACMI system that is normally used by various air forces. The old system needed ground based stations to provide a 3D images of an aerial engagement. Because of the ground stations the ACMI range is a fixed piece of air space that is in high demand. The new system enables the Rafale pilots to conduct Air Combat Maneuvers in any available airspace.

With all the new technology incorporated in the Rafale, Escadron de Transformation Rafale 03.004 “Aquitaine” is able to give the Rafale pilots the most up to date training available making sure that the future Rafale pilots are able to tackle any mission presented to them in the years to come.

We would like to thank all the French Air Force personnel involved in creating this article.